- This is the second half of TSSM’s interview with Megan Levis. We talked at greater length about this graduate student’s research and its good fit with values-informed thought, with the Society of Catholic Scientists, and even literature. The Society held its third annual conference at the University of Notre Dame a few months ago.
- In Megan’s presentation to the scientists at the SCS annual conference, she posed the question: How do you distinguish and exercise ethical responsibilities when something like brain organoids are “made in the image and likeness of man rather than the image and likeness of God.” Organoids are multicellular systems built from brain tissue. Are they just cell cultures or something so akin to the human being—particularly when they are brain organoids—that ethical duties arise out of respect for human dignity? This is a relatively new field where the scientific understanding and moral consideration still must develop in tandem, she explained. A New York Times article touched on some of the questions being raised.
- Megan’s own main research project as part of her graduate studies at Notre Dame deals with microfluidics. They are devices, a kind of miniature bio-reactor, in which researchers can grow cells and small organs. Her goal is to make it easier and less expensive to make microfluidics that can be used in future research. Here are resources on microfluidics from the journal Nature.
- Her collaborations in this area came about from her meeting with a leader in microfluidics technology, Dr. Fernando Ontiveros, while they were both attending a previous SCS conference. His team is exploring new applications for microfluidics, such as the growing of organoids.
- At what point should moral concerns tied to the dignity of the human person “kick in” when dealing with the brain and brain organoids? Where do you as a person reside in the body? The existence of a capacity for rational thought is a conventional scientific benchmark for the existence of personhood, Megan said. There are many theories of the complex brain-mind-body connection with personhood. The human person is a complex creature, not reducible to the brain or body alone. Here’s an exploration of some insights from National Geographic.
- There is a real role for literature in helping us to explore the many questions that combine operational questions of engineering and more abstract, integrated thinking about persons, Megan says. She recommends renowned author Walker Percy, who explored such subjects in Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. He comments that being a human is inevitably an uncomfortable process involving tensions within our nature. Our culture tends to look to science for answers to the big questions of human nature, but literature and art are pathways to answers too; literature allows us to think without predispositions and suppositions, to discover truths about ourselves and the world that transcend scientifically measurable parts. As Megan put it, the ability to wonder about the world is a gift that is transmitted sometimes through engineering and sometimes through literature and art.
- Megan has been able to work with Ontiveros while he has done research and prepared journal articles at Notre Dame. With the support of mentors and advisors, she has embraced opportunities at Notre Dame and elsewhere to spend time thinking about faith and science in relationship. She attended a conference with like-minded graduate students interested in these connections. She has appreciated the insights of SCS president Stephen Barr and microbiologist Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, OP, a speaker at this year’s SCS conference. Barr is the author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith. Austriaco has recorded a podcast available through the Thomistic Institute titled The Science and Practice of Christian Prayer.
- What does Megan recommend for graduate students and others who want to advance in their bioengineering studies while staying informed and mindful about the faith-related aspects? She highlights the power of community, building friendships and conversations over time with a diverse range of people on similar journeys, including philosophy and science. One can attend relevant lectures and conferences, such as those sponsored by Notre Dame’s De Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture. She recommends the resources of the Collegium Institute. Building and updating such mindfulness is a long-term process requiring persistence, she adds.
[Image from weather.com, https://weather.com/storms/hurricane/news/2019-09-02-hurricane-dorian-labor-day-bahamas-florida-georgia-carolinas]
This week, Hurricane Dorian crossed the Bahamas. On Monday, while I was writing this, it was still there. It was a Category 5 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale, which meant that it had winds somewhere within the storm blowing at over 157 miles per hour for at least a minute...i.e., sustained winds, not short-lived wind gusts. The wind speeds are comparable to an Enhanced Fujita (EF)-4 tornado, except that this storm is going on for days and is spread out over a much, much larger area than any tornado.
The winds are driven by an intense pressure differential between the eye of the storm and the surrounding atmosphere. At sea level, atmospheric pressure averages to somewhere just above 1 bar.
(1 bar = 100,000 Pascals, Pascals being the natural SI / metric unit of pressure. A fluid with a pressure of 1 Pascal, acting on one side of an object 1 kilogram in mass and 1 square meter in size, would accelerate it at 1 meter per second, per second into a pure vacuum. One kilogram is accelerated 1 m/sec/sec by 1 Newton of force, and 1 Pascal is 1 Newton spread over 1 square meter. You physicists, think through that explanation and contact me with corrections, but I believe that's correct.)
The Weather Channel graphic above notes that Dorian's central pressure was 919 mb, or 0.919 bar. That's a difference of almost 10% from normal pressure, and that's a huge pressure gradient, which is what accelerates the air to these howling velocities.
This massive difference in pressure also sucks the water of the ocean upward into the core of the storm, which is at least part of the phenomenon of storm surge. The water is pushed into the gap by the ambient air pressure outside the storm.
What causes this region of strongly lowered air pressure at the core of the storm in the first place? This is where my meteorological knowledge ends, although rising of warm air near the warm surface of the ocean is a crucial part.
I don't know what will be left standing in the northern Bahamas, and at this point we don't know how much of the U.S. east coast this monster will hammer, and how hard. It is nearly stuck in place at the moment.
- Megan Levis is a fifth-year graduate student in bioengineering at the University of Notre Dame. The topic of her talk at the annual conference of the Society of Catholic Scientists was “Created in the Image and Likeness of Man.” She described the University’s bioengineering program.
- Growing what can be deemed the beginnings of a human brain, for purposes of research, invites important ethical considerations. Levis has found resources at and through Notre Dame for deeper study of the responsibilities entailed in such research. She has worked with the John J. Reilly Center on science, technology and values. She has also been part of the Leadership Advancing Socially Engaged Research (LASER) program within the Graduate School.
- Levis participated in an NSFsupported workshop on engineering design principles of multicellular living systems. Such workshops reflect a growing nationwide interest in the ethical and societal ramifications of rapidly developing technology related to systems of living things. The interest is prompting collaboration among philosophers, scientists, ethicists and engineers.
- It’s a false dichotomy to separate faith and engineering. Levis said her advisor [Jeremiah Zartman] has been supportive of integrating values-related concerns, and that integration has made her research better. Now that there is an increased focus in bioengineering on the transfer, or translation, of knowledge from the lab bench to hospitals and clinical practice, the assessment of ethical implications is even more important.
- Organoids are systems built from human cells that begin to look like an organ. In this new field, it’s important to create room for philosophical understanding, but right now the field is dominated by engineers and scientists largely using terms that sound like clunky jargon. Philosophy tells us we need to define our terms better, Levis said. We need better ways to describe what’s going on in accessible ways that allow for ethical thinking. Engineers tend to look at every component in its specifics, but there is value in seeing how one thing is similar to something else so both may come under similar ethical principles.